fresh bread: when the message doesn’t do it for you

We also had the good news preached to us, just as the Israelites did. However, the message they heard didn’t help them because they weren’t united in faith with the ones who listened to it. (Hebrews 4.2, CEB)

I know a lot of preachers and teachers. We share. I observe. And so this much I know we have in common: there isn’t a preacher or teacher on the planet who doesn’t hear it all the time. Sometimes it comes to us obliquely and sometimes it arrives head-on, but it’s always there. Always. To one degree or another.

  • “There just didn’t seem to be anything in that lesson for me.”
  • “Well, at least I got a good nap.”
  • “Maybe if you used more Scripture maybe I’d get more out of your sermons.”
  • “Maybe if you used less Scripture and more illustrations I’d get more out of your sermons.”
  • “And your point was …”

Ouch.

Whoever said “Sticks and stones may hurt my bones, but words can never hurt me” was either deaf or an idiot. Speaking for this preacher, and virtually all I know, nothing hurts worse. Nothing.

And here’s why.

  • When you’re somewhere beyond buried in the wide, daily demands of ministry, ranging everywhere from administrivia to heart-rending counseling situations …
  • When no matter how early you start, how late you stay, how fast, how hard, or how efficient you work, you know you’re able to deal with about .01% of what needs to be done …
  • When there’s no such thing as a 45, a 55, or even just a 65 hour work week and you’re on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and trying to balance all of that with some remote image of a family life and a personal life …
  • When in the midst of that storm you struggle to carve out and protect some shred of sane quality time to prepare some semblance of several fresh, meaningful, creative, helpful, and truly God-honoring  sermons and lessons week-in and week-out without fail …
  • And then upon sharing that message you’ve tried to grapple with in thought, bathe in prayer, and sweat blood over in delivery, and someone says to you rather dismissively of it all, “That just didn’t do anything for me” …

It hurts.

But not as a personal hit or something to be taken as a personal offense. Rather it hurts because you know standing right in front of you is one of God’s people, one of your kin in Christ, who apparently did precious little or even nothing to encounter a message from God with personal faith. Then these words of God’s Spirit come to my mind:

“… the message they heard didn’t help them because they weren’t united in faith …”

It makes my heart hurt; it makes me bleed. And this is why it bleeds:

  • My brother was passive, not active in it all.
  • My sister apparently expected to receive without giving.
  • My kin in Christ clearly didn’t engage the experience with trust in our God and his promise of faithful provision in all things.
  • My fellow church family member thought the whole experience was for their personal benefit rather than for them to be united with God and all of his people.
  • My partner in the kingdom of God honestly wasn’t helped because they didn’t try to help themselves.

And so it hurts to say it, but say it I must, for it’s part of the message God has given us all …

Sometimes sermons suck. Sometimes lessons are lacking. And sometimes they lack or suck not at all because of anything the preacher did or didn’t do or from what the message did or didn’t have, but because of what was lacking in the hearts of those who heard it.

Or precisely as God’s Spirit had it said for us:

“… the message they heard didn’t help them because they weren’t united in faith …”

In faith, let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, in the name of Jesus, we preachers and teachers lift up to you our poor offerings we presume to call “sermons” and “lessons.” Where they honor you, please bless. Where they dishonor you, please forgive. In it all, have mercy on us God, sinners all we are. And have mercy on all of your people in how we hear you and through all that is. Unstop our ears. Help us to open our hearts. Grant us the grace to open our closed minds. To this end, we pray, that we would be united more fully with you and each other forever. Amen.

ct: believing is seeing

[Reflecting on Thomas' reaction to Jesus' invitation for him to touch his wounds and believe in John 20:19-31]

Jesus is the wound of the Father’s love, which we share through the gift of the Spirit. Let us confess we would prefer a savior not wounded, not wanting our own wounds exposed. Then let us recognize that such wounds are necessary for seeing the world and ourselves truthfully. And so, to be so wounded by the Spirit is what it means to be blessed, to be among those who have not seen but who have come to believe. Indeed, the church is constituted by those who have come to believe what we have not seen by trusting in what we have been told. (Stanley Hauerwas, A Cross-Shattered Church: Reclaiming the Theological Heart of Preaching, pp.31-32)